Once upon a time, as long ago as spring 2010, Florida had potential problems with its prospects filling their positions. But because of how they’ve resolved the issues, the Fish might be able to give their feast-or-famine fans another cause to celebrate come October.
Consider their lot little more than a year ago. Logan Morrison was a first baseman. As prospects went, he wasn’t considered an ideal first-base bat. While he showed an excellent batting stroke in his age-20 and -21 seasons and excellent command of the strike zone, he also had less power than you normally would associate with the position. And no, he wasn’t seen as the next Keith Hernandez around the bag, so as good a prospect as he was, he might have been an odd fit at first base.
A rung or two ahead of Morrison in the Fish farm system, the Marlins also had Gaby Sanchez, a third baseman whose footwork and defense wasn’t considered top-shelf, but also someone whose bat could play in the majors.
This winter, they traded for super utility man Omar Infante. They knew they’d also be getting 2009 Rookie of the Year Chris Coghlan -- an infielder in the minors -- back from injury. Would they leave Coghlan in left field, and leave Morrison with no place to play?
The Marlins’ solution to this multi-corner conundrum? They let the best available bats play. Sanchez had already earned first crack at first base last season as a 26-year-old rookie, and delivered a solid, but unspectacular, .273/.341/.448 season with 19 home runs. They were also already set with Mike Stanton looking like a league-leading slugger for years to come out in right field. With two corner positions already filled, Morrison was moved to left in the minors, and he has done nothing but hit since, managing a .292/.397/.487 line in his first 88 games as a pro. Some scouts expected disaster in the field, but disaster has not in fact come. Why should it? With strikeout rates peaking, defenders are making fewer plays than ever, so taking a chance in the corners can pay off, and Morrison’s bat is definitely doing that.
What about Coghlan? The Marlins made the daring decision to move him to center field. So far, the fielding metrics are mixed in their evaluation of his performance. But as a way of getting the 2009 Rookie of the Year (after a .321/.390/.460 season) in the lineup, they’ve few reasons for regret. Added to Sanchez, Morrison and Stanton, the Marlins’ brass has found room in the lineup to deploy all of their best ready-now homegrown batters around Hanley Ramirez.
The Marlins are not the first team to have problems sorting out a crowded collection of alternatives at various positions, and they won’t be the last. But in part because of their decisions -- decisions that go against the grain of any recent “trend” that defense is what matters most -- the Fish are getting set to let their best bats play. Already parked behind the Phillies and boasting the second-best record in the National League, these are the kinds of critical decisions that should keep the Marlins toward the top of the playoff pack well down the stretch.
Why does this matter? In part, because the Marlins are a league-best 14-4 in one-run games so far after sweeping the Giants on Thursday, something that might be seen as “lucky.” While having to get by with Emilio Bonifacio (during Morrison’s three-week absence on the DL) and Greg Dobbs in the lineup might lead you to expect regression. But that’s the thing about regression -- like life, it isn’t fair. Going forward, the Marlins won’t have to make do with Bonifacio and Dobbs playing every day, any more than they have to anticipate that Ramirez and Infante will deliver .600 OPS seasons.
The Fish can bank their already-achieved +10 in one-run games and look forward to better offense. They also have the expected advantage of adding prospect Matt Dominguez at third base -- if he earns the call. By already affording themselves reputedly worse defenders in left and center, they should have space for Dominguez’s Gold Glove potential at third base -- a case of putting up their best bats and their best defenders on the diamond.
As little-engine-that-could stories go, the Marlins are tough to love, given what we know about how they operate on a budget. But it’s enough to make you wonder whether the Marlins’ anthem ought to be Duke Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing." But instead of getting that swing, in the past 14 years the Fish have twice over gotten their ring, their bling, all while delivering a collective ding on the other 27 teams that haven’t won two titles in the span. With premium talent deployed to good effect, maybe the Marlins can make it three in 15 as they sail into their ill-gotten pleasure park in Little Havana next season.
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Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.